Following on from last week’s post about paid soldiers, this week I’m looking at the ultimate paid soldier: the mercenary.
Some great soldiers became mercenaries in the fourteenth century, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who later became Constable of France and was buried near his king in St-Denis. It was du Guesclin who led the Great Company and was also the leader of the mercenaries who fought against the Black Prince at the battle of Nájera in 1367. One of his companions in that army was the English knight Sir Hugh Calvely, who changed sides and proved very useful to the Black Prince by securing the route through Navarre to Castile for the English and Gascon army. Robert Knolles was another sometime mercenary greatly valued by the Prince and his father, although his lowly origins sometimes caused problems for the nobles who served under him.
Mercenaries were used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the crossbowmen who formed the first wave of the French attack against the English army at Crécy were Genoese mercenaries. The English also used mercenaries in their garrisons in Brittany in the 1340s and 1350s, although they learned the hard way that mercenaries were difficult to control.
It was in peacetime that mercenaries became a real problem. King Jean II was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. This led to a series of peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Brétigny in 1360.With much of the French nobility dead or captured and the king a prisoner in London, it was almost impossible for the French to continue the war.
Men who were used to being paid to fight didn’t have anything to return to in England. Soldiers at a loose end joined together to form the free (not controlled by kings or governments) companies. They made money in two ways. One was a form of protection money. They would threaten towns and villages and allow themselves to be paid not to attack them. The money they collected was called a patis. The other was to be paid to fight on behalf of a lord, king or, in the case of Italy, city state.
After the Jacquerie, the French peasants’ revolt in 1358, the Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) had internal problems to deal with as well. This meant that there were thousands of soldiers in France with nothing to do and no way to earn money. Mostly these were English soldiers, but there were also French soldiers who thought that hiring themselves out would increase their wealth and social standing.
The best known of the free companies was the Great Company. It was made up of ever-changing smaller bands of mercenaries. It was originally formed out of some small Gascon groups, and the Gascons remained as its core, which goes a long way to explaining why Aquitaine was rarely troubled by them. Not surprisingly the free companies tended to be unstable. They were made up of the worst kinds of men from all social classes except the nobility. Many of them were criminals and thieves on the run from justice. All were self-seeking and ambitious. Interestingly it was the English groups that were the most stable. This was possibly because they had become used to fighting together in various campaigns, were better disciplined and tended to trust one another.
The bands of mercenaries became a great menace and Charles V used them creatively by hiring the Great Company to aid his ally Enrique de Trastámara in Castile when the king, Don Pedro, gave his support to Edward III. Du Guesclin led a band of French and English mercenaries into Spain to help depose Don Pedro. Most of the English mercenaries in the Great Company fought against their captain when they joined the Black Prince to fight on the side of Don Pedro.
One of the most famous and most successful English mercenaries was Sir John Hawkwood, who spent most of his career in Italy. One of the reasons why the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was the incessant fighting in the north of Italy, which made it dangerous for the pope to remain in Rome. There was much work there for mercenaries. Hawkwood was completely ruthless and fought for most of the Italian states before ending up in Florence in 1380. Although he was known as Sir John, he was probably not made a knight by Edward III or by the Black Prince.
He was part of du Guesclin’s Great Company that attacked Avignon in 1361, but he later joined the army Innocent VI hired in order to move the papacy back to Rome. This became the White Company, which he eventually commanded. The White Company did in Italy what the Great Company was doing in France. It didn’t take long for the White Company to become known for its brutality. Eventually Hawkwood became commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s. At the end of his life he wanted to return to England, but died before he could do so.
Hawkwood was the orchestrator of more than one atrocity and had a reputation for brutality. Despite this, unlike many other mercenary captains, some of whom were killed by their own men, he died in his bed in 1394. At his death he was very wealthy, owning property and even a castle in Tuscany.
Avignon and, therefore, the pope, was forced to pay to rid itself of mercenaries four times: in 1357, 1361, 1365 and 1368. By 1368 the pope had returned to Rome, but Provence was still perceived to be a place of wealth compared to France, which had been stripped bare by thirty years of war.
Whilst a mercenary might hope to become very rich, his fate was more likely to be that of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy who were either killed by the English and Welsh archers or trampled by the advancing knights behind them.
Fighting as a mercenary does not seem to have harmed the careers of the captains, as many of them returned to fight for their kings when hostilities began again in earnest in the 1370s. Being a mercenary wasn’t seen as incompatible with chivalry. Some praised knights for taking the opportunity to gain experience, but for many towns and villages in France their presence meant that there was never peace.